Vacation

by Richard H. Geisel

A break in the routine was coming. I had been working 7/24 for months. Just think of it, new clothes, hair cut, regular hours, majestic sunrises, palm trees, gourmet meals, single man about town ready to howl at the moon.

I had been transferred from leading a hunt and destroy squad to nurse maiding a platoon of armored personnel carriers. They were having down time at the base but I had to carry on, they had the vacation and I just kept patrolling. 

The lights went out. Some vacation. Instead of walking point now I have a 3 man team walking out of the gates of the support base. This Shangri-La, in the middle of rice paddies forming waves with the wind, herds of water buffalo grazing silently and buffalo dung. Buffalo dung everywhere, especially in my nostrils. Every time I hear the virtues of organic, I smell the dung and see the fields being organically prepared for someone’s table.

For eight months my life had been a world of silence, listening for sounds not in my hearing frequency.  I have no doubt my ears are growing larger. Rustle of leaves, limbs out of joint, ants marching across dry leaves, voices and the piercing sound of silence. It’s hard for me to believe but “yes, I can hear ants”.

Picking my steps through the bush became a ballet of movement; my sounds could not become a disguise of the sound of danger. Sounds used to be beautiful and I would search for them. Now sounds are my enemy.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

Now, I am assigned as a grunt squad leader to protect the APC’s. Silence; there is no silence. The men talk and scream trying to be heard above the diesel engines. The metal tracks clang along the earth, shaking it, cutting into it and chewing up all under the metal. I couldn’t be a larger target than if I were a clown with a bouquet of rainbow balloons in a one ring circus. I am going to die.

My job was to search and destroy, kill people, silently and efficiently. Now the hunter has become visible. There are no discussions, no committee meeting; an order comes down, my life changes.

“Okay, the orders for the night are; set up an outpost 500 yards from the fence and watch for any gooks.”

As I reached the coordinates I called back to base and the lights were turned on to protect the base perimeter. We were the early warning of menace. The 500 yards we crossed had been exfoliated with Agent Orange and the CAT dozers had stripped the trees aside. The pastoral scene had been violently exorcised by machines. The undulating terrain makes for a good dig in for the night.

After we set up I radioed in and said it was alright to turn the lights back on in my sector.

“Okay, we’ll have the normal night rotation and radio check.  I’ll take the first watch.”

There was no moon and the stars were a blanket across the sky. There are stars in the States but not the same stars that light your way as in Vietnam. These are a cold white, larger more brilliant. The terrain was barren with a few tree stubbles. I had a clear field of fire. In the daytime the rules of engagement were different than at night. Nighttime was a free fire zone. I had always lived in free fire zones, day and night.

The other posts started to call in with hourly observations. Post 1 clear, post 2 clear, post 3 clear. I radioed in the same. “I think we are going to have a quiet night.” I thought of my German ancestors who would say “don’t jinx yourself.” Well, I did.

Through my scope I could see something in the distance, three spheres close to the ground.

“Here, take a look with the scope.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Look again, right in front, 200 yards.”

“Nope.”

“Give me that.” Sure enough; I could see just the smallest top of three heads. There was no movement, but they were there.

“Try again.”

“I see them this time, very small, close to the ground.”

“Base, I have several gooks 200 yards to my front, please confirm.”

“We don’t see them.”

“You got to see them. We see them. Call the other posts and check for movement. They’re coming.”

“The other posts don’t have any sightings nor are there any sightings from the perimeter.”

“Okay, we’ll keep watching ‘em and let you know of any movement.”                  

“I’ll call in the coordinates for the target.”

More posts checked in; still no sightings from other sectors. My gooks just stayed where first spotted; no movement.  Hour after hour straining for any movement, nothing.

“Stay alert. They could start running at us anytime.”

I see movement but they’re not moving forward. What’s going on? Do something!  Movement as wheat swaying in the wind is taunting. To get a better view I raise up from my position with the scope.  One figure gets taller.  What are they doing?  Must be scouts for the main body.

“Base, can’t you see one of them now?”  “Nothing there” comes back on the radio.  I slowly get back to my position and my nemesis gets smaller.  He can see me.  What we have here gentlemen is a conundrum.  I slowly raise my arm and wave it.  My nemesis also waves.  What?

We are the enemy.  Those are our shadows projected out in the field. We’re lit up like ducks in a shooting gallery… see the ducks, shoot the ducks.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

“Base, turn the lights off and leave them off or I’m coming in!”

“It looks like it’s gonna be a quiet night.”